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Getting Messy

I am a messy desk person. I always have been a messy desk person, and at this point I think I always will be a messy desk person.

This fact always seems to come as a surprise to colleagues and friends. “But you seem so organized!” they exclaim, in a tone that makes it clear I’ve just revealed something disappointing and mildly shameful about myself. I am quite organized, but it’s always interesting to see how the state of my desk causes people to question this assessment of me.

I get it. Messy is not a characteristic we aspire to. At best, we consider it a quality of someone who’s childish or careless; at worst, a sign of madness. Mary Kondo took this to the bank.

In a broader sense, most institutions and organizations see ‘messy’ as synonymous with inefficient, risky, insubordinate, and out of control. Yes, they want everyone to be innovative, creative, and authentic, but tidily, and only to this pre-determined point while in accordance with corporate branding guidelines, please and thank you.

This disdain for mess, and a desire to instead bring order to chaos leads organizations to paper it over with models and metaphor. We end up speaking of organizations and the people in them as machines, and plotting a clear course through the messiness of change with various stages, steps, and freezing/unfreezing cycles. Some of these models and metaphors are useful, sometimes. Objectively, often they are not. And yet organizations continue to invest considerable faith and resources into over-engineered approaches to messy things.

I thought about this reading Paul Hebert’s post this week, Addicted to Certainty – HR’s Curse and Blessing:

“The bottom line is the human OS doesn’t perform the way you want in any sort of predictable fashion. And that’s a problem.

It’s a problem because business is addicted to certainty.”

Many suggest that rigidity in the face of complexity is perilous; that demanding neat and certain approaches results in brittle and demoralizing bureaucracy, with little benefit beyond reassuring ourselves that we’re in control and know what we’re doing.

Proponents of more responsive, participatory organizations (amongst others) think the answer to more volatile and ambiguous times is less control, not more. That it simply isn’t possible to engineer certainty. In her magnificent post One Human at a Time, Céline Schillinger writes:

“My hypothesis is that our culture of expertise and efficiency, our passion for control, combined with the lack of diversity in decision-making spheres, business schools or consulting companies, supported by individual-based merit reward systems, creates systems with small brains (few people think), many hands (many people execute) and little to no heart. This sort of monster used to work well in the past, when changes in technology and business were slow, compatible with anticipation and long reaction times. It is not the case anymore.”

It all sounds quite rational on the page, in the abstract. In practice, working in ways that embrace uncertainty and cede control contradicts a significant amount of socialization most of us have absorbed throughout our schooling and career. It does feel risky to let go, and that feeling causes most of us to fall back into control and certainty-seeking. A vicious cycle.  Schillinger writes:

“Being in control is great to the point is becomes counter-productive. Leaders need to learn to let go. It’s tough. Without a plan, a governance, reporting… many think it’s going to be chaos. But “the opposite of control is not chaos; it’s trust” (one of my favorite quote by Holger Rathgeber)”

Maybe it’s my tiny, inner dictator talking but I think that trust given by someone in authority can feel like chaos to people with less power in an organization. Communicating our intentions and finding a way to confer more autonomy without more fear can be tricky, and it’s not a one time thing.

Let It Go

So how can we know where to let go? How can we identify when and where control has become counter-productive? When is the right time to focus on trust and accept uncertainty?

I don’t have a good answer. Right now I’m just trying to stay curious when I default to control, or feel the need to be or seem certain. I don’t expect to have an ear for it yet, but I’m listening for when it makes sense to muddle through, rather than scope and plan. I imagine I’ll mess it up a lot before I get the hang of it or give up all together.

In the meantime, I’ll lean on the advice from others:

“Certainty is the opiate of business and a trap for all. Don’t fall into it. Understand your role in business is to manage through uncertainty – not make things certain. You can’t do that. You cannot know the future or create it. Just manage it. Get used to it.” Hebert

Read This Week:

Will this be on the Test?” What are we doing to our Students and Employees? – Alan Colquitt Ph.D, LinkedIN

Thanks to Paul Thoresen for sharing this post with me (it references another doom loop and quotes Seth Godin, how could anyone not love it?). A truly fascinating and troubling look at how incentives work on our brains, and those of students and employees. Worth a read.

“Fear and incentives–this is the essence of motivation in organizations. This is the legacy of agency theory, one of the “mother theories” behind many of our traditional compensation and performance management (PM) practices. If we want employees to perform, we need to incent, threaten, and “menace” them. This is Seth’s point: “We are taught to fear the boss, fear the review and our performance ranking and we only do the work if we get paid for it.” And because we are smart, we adapt. We become instrumental thinkers and behavers. We ask what’s on the test, we manipulate the incentive system, and we learn to compete with our colleagues for top ratings and rewards.”

How We’ll Win – Quartz

I am absolutely loving Quartz at Work’s “How We’ll Win” series, a year-long project exploring the fight for gender equality. The Visionaries is a series of interviews with industry-leading women, and is just astonishingly good. A couple of favorites so far:

From their interview with Tarana Burke, activist and founder of the #MeToo movement:

What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

“This is not really a movement about trauma—it’s a movement about joy. It’s a movement about love and about respect, and it’s about finding the ways that we can cultivate those things in our lives so that we can use them to combat the trauma we’ve experienced.”

From the interview with Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel :

At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

“I wish I hadn’t believed that life is basically a meritocracy. I wish I hadn’t believed that just because someone is in a position of power means that he/she knows what he/she is doing. That’s been both a depressing and freeing realization that I only made in my mid-to-late thirties.”

From the interview with Erica Joy Baker, software engineer:

What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

“We aren’t thinking enough about how dealing with racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. is affecting those who are experiencing them in the workplace, beyond the emotional trauma. We aren’t thinking about the lost time spent having to fight those issues. We aren’t thinking about the mental energy wasted on dealing with them: energy that should have been spent on doing our jobs. We aren’t talking about the amount of productivity lost because of it. While those who aren’t affected by bias and and bigotry in the workplace are able to completely focus on their work and advance as a result, those of us who have to spend time, energy, and effort on dealing with bias and bigotry instead of doing our jobs end up even further behind.”

Photo by Ricardo Viana on Unsplash

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